Saturday, 23 June 2012


From The Clare Champion...
From Drumline to the Blue Ridge - a mystery solved
Written by Mary E Lyons

In August 2010, a Clare Champion article informed readers of my search for descendants of the Crohan (also Croghan) family who worked on the mile-long Virginia Blue Ridge Tunnel. The train tunnel—along with three shorter tunnels and 34 miles of connecting tracks—was a dangerous, 10-year public works project between 1850 and 1860. The entire endeavor took the lives of more than 200 Irish famine emigrants. About 100 were Blue Ridge Tunnel workers or family members living in shanties near each portal.

When the article appeared, I had only a few clues about the Blue Ridge Croghans. One was an inscription on Hannora Croghan's gravestone at Thornrose Cemetery in Staunton, Virginia, at the western end of the railroad project. It states she was from Drumline, County Clare. I assumed this meant the civil parish of Drumline.

From the US census, I also knew Hannora's sons, Daniel and Thomas, were living with her near the Blue Ridge Tunnel in 1850. The three Croghans resided in the same dwelling as Peter Crowe; his wife, Mary, and their children. The structure was very near the west portal of the tunnel.

The Croghan and Crowe families would have lived together in a rented farmhouse or hastily built shanty—a typical situation during the construction decade. Irish families along the Blue Ridge Railroad often doubled or tripled up in cramped quarters. In one case, 99 people lived in the same dwelling.

Thanks to a surviving two-page payroll, I also knew Peter Crowe helped build a major viaduct and adjacent culvert on the west side of the Blue Ridge Tunnel. Identified as a mason on the payroll, he was the first worker listed and paid more than other listed masons, hinting he was a master at his craft. Daniel and Thomas Croghan were on the same payroll. They must have been Peter's
apprentices; Daniel later gave his occupation as stonemason on a US census.

The response after the 'Champion article appeared was immediate and gratifying. Two readers—Flan Enright and Pat O'Brien—were already familiar with historical records related to Croghans in Drumline parish. With their research information in hand, I tried to connect the Drumline Crohans with the Blue Ridge Croghans. After months of drawing descendant charts (I wore out five erasers), I couldn't answer the question or make a definitive link.

One item was a particular puzzle. The 1860 Census told me Hannora's son, Daniel, was married by 1860. He and his wife, Ellen, were living in Staunton, Virginia, that year. The widowed Hannora still lived with Peter Crowe and his family. I wondered why she wasn't living with her son.

Happily, two vital clues surfaced as I completed research for a book about the Blue Ridge Tunnel at the Virginia Center for the Humanities in Fall 2011. First, the 1870 US Census listed Mary Croghan as Peter Crowe's wife. Hannora was not just living with friends in 1860, she was living with her married daughter, Mary Croghan Crowe.

Next, I discovered an 1851 advertisement in the Missing Friends column of the Boston Pilot newspaper. The ad, mailed from a post office located along the Blue Ridge Railroad, stated Daniel Croghan was searching for his brother, John. Identified as a blacksmith in the ad, John was from the townland of Drumline. This small but crucial detail considerably narrowed my search.

John eventually found his way to the Blue Ridge Tunnel area, as did a relative named Timothy. An 1852 ledger for a general store near the construction shows that Daniel, Thomas, John, and Timothy (also written as Thady and Teddy) Croghan bought gunpowder, flax thread, boots, smoking pipes, and numerous plugs of tobacco, while working on the railroad.

Last winter, I reached out to my Clare research partners, informing them that the Blue Ridge Croghans were from Drumline townland. The result has been a fascinating ride in a time machine. It begins with Peter Crowe. On a windy day in February, I drove up to the Blue Ridge Mountains and examined what I call the Crowe-Croghan culvert. It's 100ft long, 8ft high and 6ft wide—a "stupendous" structure, according to the railroad's chief engineer in 1850. The universal Masonic symbols of a T-square ruler and open compass are inscribed on the keystone.

I shared photos of the culvert with my Clare contacts. It turns out a family of masons, well known for their stonework, lived in Drumline townland in the 19th century. Their last name was Crowe. Surely, Peter Crowe, who married a Drumline Croghan, was from Drumline, too? It's likely he was related to "Black Johnny" Crowe, a mason who helped build the Bunratty Castle Bridge in 1804.

Though I've been unable to locate any letters between the Drumline and Blue Ridge Croghan families, I've found something better. I've touched the graceful arches and finely fitted stones of the culvert and noticed the same handiwork in online photos of the Bunratty Bridge. Both are a tribute to skills that passed down through generations in Ireland, endured the Famine and survived a 3,000-mile Atlantic crossing.

I think the Masonic symbols on the culvert keystone are as important as Maya hieroglyphs carved on limestone or cuneiform symbols stamped in a Mesopotamian clay tablet. Like these priceless antiquities, the inscribed keystone holds a story of Irish artistry that has outlasted paper and ink. Told on stone, it will outlast us all.

For more about the Blue Ridge Tunnel and the 3,000 Irish associated with it, see Dark Passage: The Virginia Blue Ridge Tunnel, a multi-touch book now available for iPad through the iTunes store. For more detail about the Crowe and and Croghan families, visit Mary E Lyons is from Charlottesville, Virginia.

Thanks for sending this on, Clara...

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